What Was The Main Lesson Learned By Workers From The Great Railroad Strike Of 1877?

In July 1877, railroad workers across the United States launched a strike that paralyzed the nation’s transportation infrastructure and led to widespread unrest. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The main lesson learned by workers from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the need for unity and organization in order to effectively stand up against the power of big business.

In this comprehensive article, we will examine the background and causes of the strike, provide a detailed chronology of key events, analyze the outcome and legacy, and discuss the main takeaway for workers regarding labor rights and relations with employers moving forward.

Background and Causes of the Railroad Strike

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a pivotal moment in American labor history. It was sparked by a series of events and factors that had been building up for years, leading to widespread unrest among the workers in the railroad industry.

Understanding the background and causes of the strike is crucial to grasp the main lesson learned by the workers.

Economic Conditions for Workers

During the late 19th century, many workers faced harsh economic conditions. Wages were often low, working hours were long, and job security was minimal. The railroad industry was no exception. Workers faced low wages, dangerous working conditions, and the constant threat of layoffs.

These economic struggles played a significant role in fueling the discontent that eventually led to the strike.

The Role of Railroad Companies

Railroad companies held immense power during this era. They controlled the transportation industry, had close ties to the government, and were able to dictate terms to their workers. The companies prioritized their profits over the well-being of their employees, leading to a growing sense of frustration and resentment among the workers.

This power imbalance contributed to the growing unrest and ultimately played a pivotal role in the strike.

Early Unrest and Demands

Prior to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, there were several smaller strikes and protests in the railroad industry. These early acts of unrest were driven by demands for better wages, improved working conditions, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

The workers saw the strike as a way to make their voices heard and to force the railroad companies to address their grievances.

Chronology of the Strike

Spark in Martinsburg, West Virginia

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad had announced a 10 percent pay cut, which led to outrage among the workers. The workers went on strike, refusing to work until their wages were restored.

This initial spark ignited a wave of protests and strikes that would spread across the country.

Spreading Protests Shut Down Rail Lines

The protests quickly spread to other cities, with workers in major rail hubs such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis joining the strike. As a result, rail lines were shut down, disrupting transportation and commerce.

This brought attention to the grievances of the workers and put pressure on the railroad companies to negotiate.

Riots and Bloodshed in Multiple Cities

The strike was not without its share of violence and turmoil. In several cities, the protests turned into riots, with clashes between striking workers, law enforcement, and even militia groups. The most severe violence occurred in Pittsburgh, where 20 people were killed and millions of dollars in property damage occurred.

These incidents highlighted the deep-seated tensions between workers and the authorities, as well as the need for a resolution to the strike.

Federal Troops Intervene

With the strike escalating and the potential for further violence, President Rutherford B. Hayes was compelled to take action. He called in federal troops to suppress the strike and restore order. The presence of the military effectively ended the strike, as workers were forced to return to work under the threat of force.

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Aftermath and Legacy

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was an event that had far-reaching consequences for both the workers involved and the labor movement as a whole. While the strike was ultimately suppressed, it left a lasting impact on the workers’ grievances, the legacy of labor unrest and solidarity, and the changes that occurred for both railroad companies and workers.

Strike Suppressed But Grievances Remain

Although the strike was eventually brought under control by government intervention and the use of force, the underlying grievances of the workers were not resolved. The strike was sparked by wage cuts and poor working conditions, issues that continued to affect railway workers long after the strike was over.

The workers’ demands for fair treatment and better pay were not fully addressed, leading to ongoing discontent and further labor unrest in the years that followed.

Legacy of Labor Unrest and Solidarity

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had a profound impact on the labor movement in the United States. It served as a powerful example of workers coming together to fight for their rights and improve their working conditions.

The strike inspired other workers across different industries to organize and demand better treatment from their employers. The sense of solidarity that emerged from the strike helped to shape the labor movement and laid the groundwork for future labor reforms.

Changes for Railroad Companies and Workers

The strike also brought about significant changes for both railroad companies and workers. In response to the strike, many railway companies implemented new policies and practices to address the grievances of their employees.

These changes included improvements in working conditions, increased wages, and the establishment of grievance procedures. On the other hand, workers also realized the importance of collective bargaining and the need to organize themselves to achieve their goals.

This led to the formation of unions and the development of labor laws that protected the rights of workers.

Main Lesson – Unity and Organization Are Key

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was a pivotal event in American labor history. It began as a protest by railroad workers against wage cuts but quickly spread to involve thousands of workers across the country.

As the strike unfolded, workers soon realized that unity and organization were crucial for their cause.

One of the main lessons learned from the strike was the power of solidarity. The strike started with a small group of workers but gained momentum as others joined in. The workers realized that by standing together and supporting each other, they could have a stronger voice and make a greater impact.

It was through their unity that they were able to disrupt the operations of the railroads and gain attention from both the public and the government.

Another important lesson was the need for organization. The strike revealed the importance of having leaders and a clear plan of action. Workers quickly formed committees and elected representatives to negotiate with the railroad companies.

They also established communication networks to coordinate their efforts and share information. This level of organization allowed the strike to be more effective and helped prevent it from descending into chaos.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 also highlighted the need for workers to have a unified message and set of demands. While the initial focus of the strike was on wage cuts, it soon expanded to include broader issues such as working conditions and the power of corporations.

This unified front helped to build public support for the strike and put pressure on the government to intervene.


In the wake of the violent railroad strike of 1877, workers recognized the hard lesson that only through unity, organization, and perseverance could they gain the leverage needed to achieve fair wages, improved working conditions, and basic rights from enormously wealthy and powerful industrialists and railroad barons.

Though the strike did not achieve its immediate aims, it marked an important step in the long march of the American labor movement towards justice in the workplace.

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